With kids home from school doing more of their learning online—and parents across the country just trying to get a little bit of their own work done at home—kids are getting record amounts of screen time these days. Preschoolers have jam-packed video conferencing schedules, kindergarteners are watching read-alouds on laptops, and elementary and middle school kids are suddenly turning in every assignment online.
How can we help kids adjust to spending so much time on screens, especially when they may have a strong association with screen time as playtime? And how can parents adjust to letting kids have so much more screen time when we’ve been told we should cut back on how much time our little ones look at our phones?
The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement in March acknowledging, basically, that previous expectations around screen time may need to be adjusted given the new reality for so many families, and experts have suggested that the screen time metric to focus on is quality, not quantity.
Here’s how to help kids adjust to being on devices more than usual:
Create separation between learning screen time + play screen time
In the big picture, screen time is screen time regardless of how it’s being used, and there are always risks to overusing something. However, it’s helpful to differentiate between screen time used for learning activities and screen time for play activities.
For example, reading a book online or participating in a Zoom class meeting is different than playing a game or chatting. Establish clear expectations around what constitutes “learning time” and “playtime” on devices. For each type of activity, be clear about the where (maybe learning always happens at the kitchen table, and play is usually on the couch) as well as the when (learning in the morning and play during the hour before dinner).
It’s important that kids aren’t media multitasking by using multiple devices or apps at one time when they’re trying to learn. Keep them on one screen at a time, which will help them stick with their activity until completion.
Set healthy limits around using devices, even for school
Use a timer or parental controls to set and enforce time limits for devices, even when your kids are using a computer or tablet for school activities. Children are used to having scheduled blocks of time at school. You can schedule your child’s learning screen time so that there’s a defined block of time for working on an online math lesson or for watching a video of a science experiment. This makes the expectations clearer for the kids—and makes screen time easier for parents to manage.
Parents can also use parental control apps like Qustodio to see what kids are doing on their devices and how long they are using different apps and websites for. The app allows parents to set a limit on how much time kids are spending on entertainment and recreational apps and websites and allow unlimited use for educational tools.
Include screen-free learning time
Creating a balance of screen time and other non-screen activities is important. Going back and forth between activities can help avoid the problems associated with using devices for lengthy periods of time.
Make sure kids get physical movement throughout the day, give them time to engage in hobbies and activities without devices and have them participate in tasks around the home, such as helping make dinner or folding the laundry. Including kids in activities like cooking, cleaning and organizing gives kids practice with reading, writing and math while encouraging the development of necessary life skills.
Give yourself a break
Ultimately, parents need to give themselves some grace during this time to try to do the best they can with finding balance. A recent study suggests that active screen time, such as playing an educational game or interacting with friends or family online, can have a positive impact on child development. Even if you were previously opposed to screen time for your kids, take heart: This situation isn’t forever.
This post was originally published on April 7, 2020 and updated April 13, 2020